brief interviews with hideous women: nurse ratched
Nurse Ratched—Mildred, as she has me call her from the start (she is Millie to friends, as she tells me three times)—lives a brisk, fifteen-minute walk from the Oregon State Hospital, where she is employed as a nurse supervising the men’s ward. (“It’s simply practical. Close to home for convenience, but just far enough away for comfort,” she tells me, impatiently.)
But Mildred owns an expansive Victorian home in Salem’s garden district, catty-cornered to a perfect little park. Small children can be heard playing there throughout our interview. The house is impeccably maintained, despite the fact that she lives alone, and has for years. She rents the rooms upstairs to university students during the school year, “as is sensible, with all this space.” Right now the upstairs rooms are empty. It is summer. “They leave such a mess up there,” she says excitedly. It’s a titillated kind of excitement; she does not seem, in the least, exasperated. “Oh, there’s garbage absolutely everywhere. Their ashtrays overflow. The little savages. Usually somebody’s left his hot plate, or there’ll be a single coat just hanging by itself in the back of closet. Can you imagine the stupidity? Just what goes on inside the teenage mind?”
I’m not sure how to answer this, and something of a pause results. During this pause I do the following: adjust my weight on the low-slung antique davenport where I’ve been seated (a small, hurt squeak escapes its whittled cherry frame) and silently stir the little teaspoon I’ve been given (I have only pretended, thus far, to drink the tea, as spearmint makes my hands and feet turn red and itch) around a rosebud-painted china cup.
“Sometimes I find drugs up there, as well—or dirty magazines.”
Ms. Ratched’s eyes, small in her face but exceedingly blue, are now watching me closely. They flick to my full cup of tea and then back to my face. They give a kind of order, and I take a tiny sip. I force a smile, and she, visibly pleased, continues.
“I do my best to get the hot plates and the raincoats back to them. I throw the drugs away, obviously.”
When she doesn’t go on, I sip my tea again. She seems to understand that I don’t want to, and it gratifies her visibly to see me do it. Still, she holds her tongue. At last I lean forward and ask her: What happens to the dirty magazines?
“Oh, let’s just say I’ve got a fine collection going.” Soft, girlish laughter, impregnable blue-beady gaze.
I’ve come to Mildred’s sitting room in 1950’s Salem, OR, to chat about nastiness, villainy, feminism, and her latest role in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For reasons of national security and of local patent law, the particulars of my journey back in time, and into the fictional sphere, are best obscured here. I will leave their fleshing out to the adept imaginations of my readers. It likely happened just the way you think.
I arrived mid-afternoon, a little northwest drizzle frizzing up my hair and streaking down the windows of the cars along the block. I’m dressed in period-appropriate clothing: a light cotton sweater set and polyester pedal-pushers (orange-and-puce plaid, I am sad to say) and kitten-heels that pinch and wobble. Reader, this is not my favorite decade of design. Still, Mildred complimented me, first thing, on my “delicate feet,” a small smile playing at her features. She, herself is dressed in black—no cape, alas, as we remain indoors for our whole visit. Her dress fits her tightly at the bust and is constructed of something like muslin. Her hair is set in crisp, immobile pin curls and her skin, though absent of makeup, is exquisitely smooth. (Her skin routine, it turns out, involves ice water and Vaseline.) She wears no jewelry, and answers the door in house slippers.
Sadly (or, perhaps, mercifully) I don’t find out more about Nurse Ratched’s magazine collection. Still, I think the interview goes well, all things considered. Below are the tenderloin highlights of our brief but revealing exchange. (I should note that I did have to end our visit early to seek medical attention. My spearmint allergy is, unfortunately, quite serious.)
Name: Mildred Ratched
Current Occupation: Nurse Supervisor at Oregon State Hospital, Men’s Ward.
Ideal Occupation: Film director
Favorite place: My apartment
Favorite food(s): French onion soup, potato salad
Favorite vice: Beefeater gin
What do you like, or do for fun?
I like telling small lies; I like to double-tie my shoe laces—it makes me feel secure; I like unhooking my bra when I get home from work, the minute I walk through my door, before I’ve even taken off my coat; I like taking my hair down, curling it, putting it up again; I like to smoke in bed; I like to leave the TV on, falling asleep; I like reading the paper on Saturday while whitening my teeth; I like buying stamps; I like the acrid smell of bug spray, the subtle taste of rot in bleu cheese dressing, the little rupture-sound of cracking ice; I like driving at night; I like being on top.
What do you dislike, or avoid?
Pistachios, knee pain, elastic waistbands, seabirds, people who aren’t at all wary of sea birds, small children, people’s dirty kitchens, being shouted at, shopping for “casual” clothes.
Personal quote or motto:
“When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.” -Ronald Reagan
Are you single?
At the moment, yes.
Who is your style icon?
What would you “rewrite” about yourself, if you could?
I think, instead of ‘Big Nurse’, I might like to be called Boss Nurse. And I’d give myself a day off now and then.
Do you think you are a villain (pure evil) or just an antagonist at cross-purposes with the hero (McMurphy)?
I get up to some pretty monstrous psychological abuse at work, and I regularly re-traumatize my patients so that they never get better. I take a visible interest, and some pleasure, in the suffering of others— so that doesn’t look great for me. Nevertheless, McMurphy is not good, per se. Not what I’d call classically heroic. By most people’s standards, he is not without serious, dangerous flaws. He’s in prison for rape. He is violent. He has his own record of mental abuse and coercion. Frankly, given that he threatens my job, endangers my patients, leaves the hospital open to any number of lawsuits, and generally makes my life hell before assaulting and attempting to kill me, one could make the case that I ordered his lobotomy in self-defense.
What role does your femininity play in your status as villain?
Well, I do have very well-described, enormous breasts, and my manner of speaking is said to be unnaturally “even” and “soft.” But the feminine traits I’m given are all botched and wrong. They only make me seem more alien and hate-able. You see my dear, I’m not, strictly speaking, a three-dimensional character. In fact I’m barely corporeal, more of a symbolic device. I’ve got “plastic” features, my eyes “click”, etc. So, in that sense, I’m not really a woman. Everything I do is designed to oppress or antagonize my patients. I don’t have gendered motivations. I just want control, and I’ll do anything to keep it. (She takes a small sip of her tea.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I remind them of their mothers.
What other hideous woman—past, present, or future— would you like to meet?
What goals do you have for the future?
Retirement with pension. To go on a cruise.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Hummel figurines—oh, and using a maid service, probably.
What is in your purse right now?
A wallet, a weekly bus pass, a green leatherette cigarette case, house keys, hand lotion, bobby pins, a tube of lipstick (peachy keen), a grocery store receipt (one jar of olives, cold cuts, tampons, one pound cake—devil’s food), loose lint, a paper straw sleeve, dust.
Chelsea Whitton's poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Sixth Finch, Bateau, Ilk, Poetry Ireland, Stand, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from The New School and is an English PhD candidate and graduate assistant at The University of Cincinnati. She is the author of the chapbook Bear Trap from Dancing Girl Press. Read more of her work at www.chelseawhitton.com.